In a journey that dates back to November of last season, and whose multilayered story lines would serve HBO just as well as they'd serve ESPN, here is the highest compliment that I can pay to head coach Tom Herman and the University of Houston Cougars in the wake of the onslaught they unleashed upon the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday — the Cougars unequivocally blurred the lines between Power Five and Group of Five conferences.
Here's what I mean — there have been upset wins by Group of Five (college football speak for "the conferences outside the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big XII") schools before, but oftentimes, they involve some combination of a lopsided turnover margin, weather and/or a little bit of luck. In other words, independent of the final score, you can usually tell which team is the Group of Five team.
Saturday afternoon (actually, beginning late morning, if we're being literal), the Cougars didn't just outscore Oklahoma. They took them to the woodshed. In terms of energy, situational football IQ, execution and coaching, Houston was the better team, and unlike in most upsets, where you say, "Well, if [Group of Five team] played [Power Five team] ten times, [Power Five team] would still win 8 out of 10 times," Houston looked like they'd have no problem winning their fair share of a ten-game series. No problem at all.
Oklahoma had no answers for Houston's athletic receivers and brutish defensive front seven. None. Let's look at the winners and losers in the aftermath...
4. Greg Ward
It's crazy to think that, this time two years ago, Ward was a wide receiver catching passes from John O'Korn. Now, after a 2015 season in which he gradually worked his way onto the nation's radar by going undefeated as a starter, he's on the front page, a Heisman short lister one week into the season. On Saturday, he was most impressive in "must have" play situations, going 9 of 11 for 147 yards on third down and destroying the Sooners with back shoulder fade throws, many of which were to...
3. Steven Dunbar
...who finished the game with seven catches for 125 yards. The Sooners, the team that was supposed to be flush with future NFL prospects, had no answer for the physically imposing Dunbar, who bludgeoned the Sooner cornerbacks into submission.
2. Tom Herman's investment manager
Herman and the Cougar faithful can deflect all they want when the speculation on Herman's future on Cullen becomes a topic. This much is a virtual certainty — Tom Herman will be making at least double what he's making this season (around $3 million). The only question is whether it is coming from a massive raise at the University of Houston or from a multi-year mega-deal with whatever marquee school decides to cut ties with its head coach (LSU has positioned itself as the early favorite). This is a lock.
1. College Football Playoff intrigue
So now the College Football Playoff talk has begun. This is something I forecasted ten months ago before the Memphis game, so as long as I'm bragging about my foresight, allow me to share with you Coog fans how these next couple of months will go...
You will be the media darling for the next week or so, and the word "playoff" will regularly be attached to your school. Tom Herman, who will appear on practically every national show out there, will say the team's only goal is to win the American conference. Then, as you start to play your conference schedule, week in and week out, the national media will turn on you as soon as you have a close shave or two. I know it feels like that close shave won't happen this season, but it will. It always does. The pundits will say your schedule stinks, so much so that your playoff future will seemingly be more about Navy and Memphis than it is yourselves. The win over Oklahoma won't be forgotten, but it will be muted a bit, unless — and here is a BIG key for Houston — unless Oklahoma beats Ohio State in two weeks (sorry, Coach Herman, your former co-workers are the enemy) and then runs through the Big XII. Oklahoma's going, say, 7-5 diminishes the Cougar résumé.
Also, rooting for Louisville is a necessity, as a matchup on November 17 at TDECU Stadium between Houston and an undefeated Louisville (who would've beaten Florida State and Clemson by then) would be touted as a de facto playoff elimination game. Brent Musburger was already looking ahead to this possibility on Saturday night (while also working in a joke about Bobby Petrine's motorcycle!) ...
This is the territory where you now find yourself, fighting for a spot at the "big boy" table on two fronts — THIS season for a playoff berth, and for FUTURE seasons....
4. Realignment clarity
...for a spot in the Big XII.
Man, conference expansion just got a whole lot more interesting, right? Intuitively, in a sensible world, Houston would have proven its mettle and played its way into the Big XII on Saturday afternoon. But conference expansion is not in anywhere near the same universe as sensible. I mean, the criteria are not really spelled out; they're just quasi-leaked through writers like Brett McMurphy of ESPN. All we know is Houston is one of the finalists, IF (still a HUGE if) the conference does decide to expand. One thing is clear — if creating compelling television content is any part of the criteria, Houston blows away the other schools in the running....
#HTownTakeover pulls a 12.8 overnight rating in Houston market.— #HTownTakeover (@D_D_Bass) September 4, 2016
Comparison, top 2015 regular season game in the H - 8.5 (Alabama-A&M)
Admitting Houston into the league creates annual matchups with the other four Texas schools, all of which would pop big ratings in Texas and likely good mid-level matchup ratings in other metro areas, especially if Herman stays long-term at UH. That said, it's interesting to speculate what smoking OU on Saturday may have done to the thought process of the ten schools in the Big XII. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy is already on the record that he doesn't want UH in the conference because it would make it more difficult to win. How many other coaches feel this way? And how much pull do the head coaches, who are practically the highest-paid employees at all their schools, have in this process? If the Big XII chooses two other schools besides UH, or chooses not to expand at all, the cries from Houston on the conference being "yellow" will be loud and highly entertaining (and possibly quite accurate).
3. College football's rankings
The new AP and coach's rankings will come out later this week, and when they do, I expect Houston will move up into the top ten somewhere, probably in the back portion of the top ten, which is a pretty sweet spot for the school to be one week into the season. Here's the thing — if rankings are based purely on the quality of work done in the current season, with no hint of "carryover" from the previous season, then Houston should be ranked second in both polls. Their win over OU Saturday was the second most impressive win of the first weekend, behind only Alabama's 52-6 trouncing of USC. Alas, they won't be ranked that highly, but they should be closer to it than they will be. Thankfully, those two polls, while perhaps subconsciously shaping the thoughts of playoff selection committee members, don't directly affect the ranking of teams for the four-team playoff.
2. Bob Stoops
There were two points in this game where I felt the Sooners lost the game, and both can be traced back to coaching:
1. On the Sooners' second series of the game, after the 60-yard pass from Baker Mayfield to Joe Mixon that gave the Sooners first down at the Houston 15, they ran three straight drop backs that turned into an incomplete pass and two short Baker Mayfield runs. This was after an opening drive in which the two backs rushed four of the final five plays for 54 yards. Why not run the ball there? Instead, the UH defense held OU to a field goal and a 10-3 lead, after it looked like the Sooners were going to go up 14-3. That was big. The Sooners' running game never really got involved at all in the game after that first drive.
2. On OU's first possession of the second half, on a first and 10 at the UH 28 yard line, the Sooners had to call timeout, trailing 19-17. Out of the timeout, they took a six-yard sack, a two-yard loss on a pass play, and threw an incomplete pass. So they got -8 yards on three plays out of a timeout, and those eight yards made the field goal attempt 53 yards instead of 45 yards, which would become quite important in a moment. After a second timeout because they had a player late getting on the field for FG protection, OU kicker Austin Seibert came up well short on his 53-yard kick (in part because of a mistimed approach) and Brandon Wilson returned the short FG attempt 100 yards for a back-breaking touchdown. In essence, a great look at an early second half lead for OU turned into a game-changing, soul-crushing highlight for the Cougars.
Both of those sequences were fraught with coaching ineptitude, and don't even begin to touch upon the complete lack of energy on the Sooner sideline after their first touchdown of the game. Stoops will never be on the hot seat in Norman; he's done too much. But it's amazing how many games like this he's had the past few years after spending the first half of his head coaching career as "Big Game Bob."
1. College football fans on Twitter
Finally, one last thing on the way out, something I haven't really addressed in writing and only spoke about on the air once last week — Coach Herman's decision to cancel his appearances on my radio show on 610 after the station tweeted out (and copied him on the tweet) an article about places he "should coach when he leaves U of H" (along with a couple of other station website peccadilloes that have been covered ad nauseam...I think the story was covered well on the Houston Press website by John Royal, so you can read his post for the background and a measured, sensible opinion on the matter).
In short, the transgressions that led Coach Herman to make his decision about our station had nothing to do directly with anything I or my two cohosts did. Still, that hasn't stopped Twitter Cougar fans from telling me what "a jerk I was to Coach Herman" and how I "got what I deserved," even though it was a post from my station's website not written by me. Sensible dialogue in 2016!
In this post, I just wanted to address the perception that somehow because I work for 610, I "hate U of H" or am tasked with forwarding a "station agenda." Not only is that conjecture not true, it's absurd, and I have hours of audio and tens of thousands of words to prove it. Those who read and listen to me know that I have covered the school fairly and, often in the past 12 months, glowingly.
In case you need a refresher, here you go:
* 11/19/15: College Football Playoff Rankings: University of Houston's 2016 Season Starts Now
* 11/20/15: University of Houston Approves Raise for Tom Herman
* 11/24/15: Tom Herman's Houston Cougars Aren't Just Relevant, They're Compelling
* 12/9/15: Houston Coach Tom Herman Named Finalist For College Football Coach of the Year
* 12/17/15: Tom Herman Nominated For More Hardware, Finalist For The Bear Bryant Award
* 8/30/16: Amid the Noise, Herman and the Coogs Tackle Their Sophomore Year Together
Hell, you can even go listen to my show open from my national show on CBS last night, in which I gave the Cougars more love in ten minutes than they've gotten from any other national host so far this season. I post all of that, in large part to have all the links in one place, so that going forward, when I am accused of "hating" and "driving an agenda," I can just tweet out the link to this post and say, "Here ya go!"
Now, just to be clear, 95 percent of the Cougar fans are great. They're very normal people, super-supportive of their school and know full well that I respect their team. But the other 5 percent look something like this guy, whom we will call "Myopic Twitter Mouth Breather," or "MTMB" for short...
@SeanTPendergast 2 bad you're associated w/610. unfortunately we don't care what your outlook is on UH anymore. 2 much UH bashing from 610..— Tony Snow (@3rdwardU) September 4, 2016
If you're keeping track at home, here are the characteristics of an MTMB. (Just to be clear, you can display one of these characteristics and still be normal. It's when you display ALL of them, like this guy, that you wind up being blogged about by me.):
1. Twitter handle that somehow refers to his school (this guy... @3rdwardU... check)
2. Twitter bio that shows an extreme, absolute amount of love for your school, like psychotic love (this guy....his contains "I am everything THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON!"... check...)
3. More than 90 percent of tweets are about his school's college football team (this dude is damn close to 100 percent...check)
4. Broad-brush painting of one person as though he carries the opinions of other people (um, yeah...check)
5. Tweets as though he speaks for the entire fan base (this guy... "WE don't care what your outlook is"... the only thing missing is a lame attempt at circling the wagons like "DO WE, GANG!?!?!"... so, yeah, check)
6. Hates 610 (a requisite for any Houston MTMB)
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(BONUS: These are not easy to find, but MTMBs with a Bible verse in their bio are the best. Because nothing says godliness quite like lobbing personal insults at someone on Twitter because you feel that person disrespected your football coach.)
To be very clear, I am happy for all of the non-MTMB Cougar fans. I really am. As for you MTMBs...I'll somehow try to survive without your listenership, readership and unbridled love.
I'll be okay.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.